Answering a question on the best places to visit in California is no easy thing.
You see, there are many gorgeous places to visit in California. Nicknamed the Golden State, this in my opinion is one of the most beautiful states in the United States of America. California has a lot to offer to any kind of traveler.
California is known to be evergreen throughout the year – every season always looks beautiful there. I am not a fan of the cold weather so if you ask me summer I’d plan to travel in the summer, when flowers blossom elegantly and the weather is just perfect, bound to guarantee a fabulous getaway. Having said that, any season is good to go!
The places to visit in California are numerous and intriguing. Where you go really is a matter of season. Places inland and in the central valley may be best avoided during those months, as the temperatures are blasting.
Furthermore, destinations like the San Francisco, San Diego or Los Angeles may not exactly be ideal during summer – what with traffic, crowds and what not. Your best bet for a great summer holiday in California is either the mountains or the coast.
In this post, I highlight the best places to visit in California, in any season. I have listed them from North to South, for an easier way to plan your time in the Golden State. At the end of the post, I share some useful tips to plan your trip there.
Looking for more things to do in California? Make sure to read my post “15 Unmissable Things To Do In California.”
The 20 Best Places To Visit In California
Located at the southern end of the Cascade Range in Siskiyou County in Northern California, Mount Shasta is a potentially active volcano and one of the best places to visit in California, especially if you enjoy nature and outdoor activities. This is a great place to go hiking, biking and camping. There are various good hotels and camping sites in Mount Shasta, so there will be no shortage of good places to stay.
TIP: If you like fishing, make sure to spend some time at Lake Siskiyou.
Another of the best places to visit in California is Lake Tahoe. A perfect place in the winter, when you can enjoy the views of the snow-capped mountains, if you go during the summer you will find mild temperatures during the day, and nice and cool ones at night. It’s a much better place to visit than the boiling hot Central Valley!
In Lake Tahoe you will have no shortage of things to do – though you can surely relax there, this is a place to go in search of the most fun-filled activities. From hiking to mountain biking to boating and more water sports (Kings Beach is perfect for swimming, by the way), this is the place to go if you are looking for action. If you visit, make sure to stop by the Donner Memorial State Park and Museum, a small museum opened in 2015 to portray the history and experience of emigrants.
You can even go on a photographic tour of Lake Tahoe. Book yours here.
The area of Napa Valley has to be mentioned among the best places to visit in California. Gorgeous landscapes, beautiful wineries where you can spend days on end wine tasting, fabulous dining opportunities and plenty of chances to get pampered in one of the many luxury and boutique hotels – you will simply love it.
And if you want to go for a hike, just head to the neighboring Sonoma Valley, which is packed with good hiking trails. Places like Trione-Annadel State Park, Foothill Regional Park, and Sonoma Coast State Park will give you an abundance of trails to choose from.
GOOD TO KNOW: Sonoma historic town is a lovely place to visit. Make sure to go by the square and the Old Spanish Mission.
Napa Valley definitely deserves a few days, but if you don’t have much time you can go there on a day trip too. If you want to go wine tasting, it may be a good idea to opt for a guided tour so that you don’t have to worry about driving. These are some good options:
- Redwoods and Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma full day tour
- Small group boutique wine tour with tasting
- Napa and Sonoma full day wine tasting experience
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park easily is one of the most beautiful ones in the world, and definitely one of the best places to visit in California. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, this is the perfect place for nature and hiking lovers, as it boasts more than 1200 km of trails.
What you will love about the Yosemite National Park is the fantastic biodiversity, with more than 400 different species of animals and just as many kind of birds.
An absolute must-see is Yosemite Falls. With its roughly 740 meters, this is the fifth highest waterfall in the world. You can go to the top of Yosemite Falls via a hiking trail that, together with the hike to Half Dome is among the most challenging ones in the national park. Easiest trails are Vernal Falls footbridge and the Mirror Lake Loop. The best season to enjoy the waterfalls is between May and June, when the snow melts.
I recommend spending a few days in Yosemite to make the most of it. This Yosemite Valley 3-day camping adventure may be a good option. But if you are short on time you may go there on day trips from San Francisco such as these:
San Francisco Bay Area
Think of California and one of the first images that springs to mind is that of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. This is one of the best places to visit in California, and one of the most important landmarks in the city. Other than that, you have to make sure to visit Alcatraz, to take in the views of Lombard Street, to walk around Chinatown, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf. Another must-visit is the Mission District, though many may find it a bit too hipster.
If you want to make the most of Golden Gate Bridge, you may want to opt for one of these tours.
- Golden Gate Bay Cruise
- California sunset cruise in San Francisco
- San Francisco Bay sunset cruise by luxury catamaran
- San Francisco bridge to bridge cruise
- San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge catamaran cruise
When it comes to Northern California seaside towns, Santa Cruz is a must-visit. At just 90 minutes drive from San Francisco, but enjoying a much better climate, in Santa Cruz you will find a boardwalk amusement park, a surfing scene (though the water of the Pacific Ocean is particularly cold), and a beautiful redwood forest which you can admire during a steam-train ride.
If you enjoy a little bit of culture and history during your trip, then you will love visiting Monterey – definitely one of the best places to visit in California. There you will find several museums and art galleries; a beautiful aquarium; and an excellent selection of good restaurants. Monterey is also home to great beaches.
TIP: Since Monterey is one of the best places to visit in California especially during the summer, make sure to book your stay in advance.
TIP: Try to visit Monterey on weekdays, as it will be less crowded.
Not far from Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a lovely seaside village where you can enjoy a beautiful sandy beach and several excellent restaurants.
Big Sur is one of the best places to visit in California. This coast is around 144 km long and home to the tallest single-span bridge in the world, Bixby Bridge. A road trip along the Big Sur will offer impressive views of the cliffs and of the Pacific Ocean – but make sure not to do it in the busy season, as this certainly isn’t an off-the-beaten-path destination! If you have time, you may want to opt for a hike to take in the magnificent views – the Big Sur is a great place for that.
If you want to visit an off-the-beaten-path head to Hearst Castle, which was built in 1922 but truly resembles a 16th century church. You can take a guided tour of Hearst Castle and enjoy breathtaking views of the ocean from there.
Pismo Beach may well have everything you are looking for in quick getaway – that’s why it’s one of the best places to visit in California. There is a small downtown with plenty of souvenir shops and local restaurants; a gorgeous beach where you can hang out, go sunbathing, enjoy swimming in the ocean. You can even rent an ATV to explore the beach.
TIP: If you intend to visit Pismo Beach, make sure to book your hotel in advance as this an increasingly popular destination!
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia is one of the best places to visit in California, significantly less crowded than Yosemite, and as such a very good alternative to the most famous park in California. During the summer you will have full sight of what this national park is all about, especially as you will be able to go camping.
In Sequoia National Park you will get to see the largest trees in the world. Make sure to also explore Kings Canyon National Park, where one of the deepest canyons in North America is located. This is a great place to admire wildlife – if you are lucky, you can spot bears and even cougars.
The Death Valley is bound to be mentioned in a post about the best places to visit in California. This desert is one of the driest places in North America, and it can get terribly hot in the summer months. If you do decide to visit, make sure to head to Dante’s View for impressive views of the valley – but go as soon as the sun rises, as it gets too hot during the day.
Among the best places to visit in California it is worth mentioning Santa Barbara. This is the kind of place where no matter your taste in travel you can find something you will enjoy. Great beaches and coves? Check. Good weather? Definitely check. Culture, history and art? Once again, check.
One of the things you are bound to love in Santa Barbara is the presence of Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture. Head to Casa Del Herrero and the Old Mission for great examples of it.
If you are in search for something a bit more active, you will find plenty of rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, cycling, boating, fishing opportunities. And if you are in search of good wine of it in the surrounding vineyards, where you will have plenty of chances to go wine tasting.
For a fabulous wine tasting tour of Santa Barbara, click here.
You will have heard of Santa Monica from movies and TV series, and will definitely know it’s one of the places where Hollywood celebrities love to live. Other than that, it is one of the best places to visit in Southern California
Among the places to visit in Santa Monica, don’t skip Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific Pier. You will have a chance to go surfing or – waves permitting – stand up paddle. And you will find plenty of excellent dining opportunities.
TIP: Santa Monica is a fantastic place to go for a romantic getaway.
Los Angeles rightly deserves to be listed in a post about the best places to visit in California. Located in Southern California, the urban center was founded in 1781 but the city started flourishing along the movie industry, from the 1920s onwards.
Los Angeles means the glitter of Hollywood, the palm ringed beaches, Rodeo Drive and the luxury shopping of Beverly Hills. It means Venice Beach – where you absolutely have to go roller blading or biking. From Los Angeles, you can easily access the lovely Santa Monica, which I have already mentioned, and Pasadena, where you will find the fabulous Huntington Botanical Gardens.
Anaheim is a small city outside Los Angeles, in Orange County, Southern California. It is best known as the home of Disneyland Resort. It is one of the best family destinations in California. But the Disney themed park isn’t the only place you should visit there!
If you enjoy the ocean, make sure to head to Huntington Beach. This beautiful beach is perfect for surfing. If you are in search of a bit of culture, you will find some interesting museums. A few minutes drive from Anaheim you will find Santa Ana, home of The Discovery Cube Orange County, which was once known as the Discovery Science Center and the Taco Bell Discovery Science Center.
If science is not your thing, head to the Bowers Museum, which has a great art collection.
It’s easy to see why Palm Springs is one of the best places to visit in California. This small town is known as the perfect weekend getaway from Los Angeles. You can spend your time browsing the buildings in modernist style, spotting vintage cars, and enjoying the mild weather during the winter time. If you are a lover of architecture and design, you may want to visit during Modernism Week.
The nearby San Jacinto Mountains and Indian Canyons will provide plenty of hiking opportunities.
GOOD TO KNOW: Coachella Festival is at a short drive from Palm Springs and takes place every year in April. Make sure to get tickets well in advance as they usually sell out!
Joshua Tree National Park
At about one hour from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park is a must-see. It is named after the Joshua tree you will see there. You should spend a few days there to properly enjoy the desert landscape, the views, and the silence. It’s a perfect place for sunrise so make sure to rise early! Other than that, it’s a great place for hiking.
San Clemente Beach Coastal Trail
Also located in Orange County, Southern California, San Clemente Beach Coastal Trail is a roughly 3 km trail that gives access to the shoreline of San Clemente. It’s open every day from roughly 4:00 am to midnight, and you can easily walk it, bike it or run it and get to access San Clemente beach and Calafia beach.
It’s a favorite of locals as well as tourists, so a great place where you will find a mixed crowd.
San Diego is one of the most fun cities in California. Right by the Pacific Ocean, this is a place where you will get a proper idea of what laid-back means. But there is a lot to see!
This is the oldest city in California, and you can truly get this when you visit the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, the birthplace of Christianity in California. Other landmarks include Balboa Park; Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, which is well-known for its conservation projects.
At a short drive from San Diego, La Jolla is the perfect place for a day at the beach.
Santa Catalina Island
If you like action, you won’t be disappointed by Santa Catalina Island. This island off the coast of California offers all sorts of adventurous activities, such as zip lining, as well as things for nature and wildlife lovers such as dolphin watching cruises. You will be able to go sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, camping, boating, horse riding and much more.
And if you are in need of something a bit more sophisticated, head to the many museums and art galleries on the island. There is so much to see and do that it definitely should be mentioned as one of the best places to visit in California.
Useful Information To Plan Your Trip To California
Getting a visa for the United States
Before even considering a summer trip to California, you should ask yourself: “Do I need an ESTA to travel to the USA from UK?”
Yes, you do. ESTA is a total compulsory requirement for UK citizens (in fact, for all citizens of the European Union) to visit USA. The ESTA actually is an authorization that allows the British citizens or nationals to visit or pass through the United States. It lasts for just 90 days; after which it expires.
Getting to California
California is well connected to the rest of the United States and Europe via direct flights from most capital cities and not only. The cheapest flights are those to Los Angeles, so I would suggest to look into those first.
Moving around California
California calls for a road trip! This is the kind of place where you should rent a car and drive around endlessly, especially if you have time. You can check the prices of car rental here.
To better prepare for your road trip, head over to my post “13 Road Trip Essentials For The Perfect Summer Road Trip.”
Other useful information
As always, I strongly advise you to get a good travel insurance for all your trips. Get yours here.
Check out my post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”
For more readings about California, you can also check one of these books:
- DK Eyewitness Guide California
- Lonely Planet California Travel Guide
- Fodor’s California with the best road trips
For more places to visit and things to do in the United States, read my posts:
- A Great Itinerary For 3 Days In San Francisco
- 10 Things To Do For A Fabulous Trip To Miami
- 35 Things To Do In New York City
- The Perfect Itinerary To See New York In 2 Days
- Seven Adrenaline Filled Things To Do In Yellowstone
- A Fabulous Itinerary For 3 Days In New York
- An Easy To Follow Itinerary For 4 Days In New York
- 5 Days In New York: An Easy To Follow New York Itinerary
- A Great Itinerary For A Week In New York
- A Wonderful Itinerary For A Day In New York
- A Complete Guide To Visiting The Statue Of Liberty
- 10 Not To Miss Hikes Near Denver
Legal Disclaimer: This post was written in cooperation with Esta Visa USA. Needless to say, the views expressed are my own.